Mental health: What is doomscrolling and how can we stop it?

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Kate Whiting, Senior Writer, Formative Content

  • Doomscrolling – continually looking for bad news online – has grown during COVID-19.
  • It’s particularly prevalent among people with mental health conditions including anxiety and depression.
  • Clinical psychologist Dr Ariane Ling explains why we are drawn to doomscrolling and how to stop it and get a better night’s sleep.

It’s past midnight. You know you should be asleep, but you’re down a social media rabbit hole of bad news and you can’t find your way out. If this sounds like you (this might be what brought you here in the first place), then you’re not alone.

Doomscrolling – compulsively scrolling through content on social media that is depressing or worrying – became one of the Oxford dictionary’s words of the year for 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic saw people turn to the internet for information and answers to allay their fears.

“The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we live and work dramatically – with individuals spending on average 4.2 hours per day on their smartphones,” said Kelly McCain, project lead for Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare at the World Economic Forum. “While more time on your phone hasn’t been linked to increased mental health problems, unlimited access to information on societal factors driving stress and anxiety, such as the pandemic, employment, and social inequality is easily accessible to a global audience.”

The doomscrolling habit tends to be more prevalent among patients with pre-existing mental health conditions, says Dr Ariane Ling, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and clinical psychologist at the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Center at NYU Langone Health.

A study of 6,000 people in Germany in spring 2020 found a link between COVID-19 related media exposure and the severity of anxiety, depression and topic-specific fear, although the causal relationship was unclear.

The authors said people knew ‘doomscrolling’ was having an impact on their mental health: “A significant number of individuals are aware of ‘overconsumption’ of information as a risk factor for mental wellbeing in the present crisis.”

But there are ways to switch off and, most importantly, get more sleep, as Dr Ling explains.

a chart showing the link between increased social media time and covid
COVID-related anxiety and the search for COVID-19 content online. Image: European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience

Why are we doomscrolling?

Human beings are hardwired to learn and to want to know what’s going on, it’s how we’ve survived. It’s why people slow down when there’s an accident on the motorway – we’re curious. Doomscrolling is a result of partly how humans are naturally, and partly the current environment.

In the age we’re in right now, there is no shortage of bad news. It can be very tempting to follow all the twists and turns of the pandemic, as well as the tensions in the sociopolitical climate. It seems like it’s never-ending.

On top of this, our phones demand our attention: headlines and the way social media is tailored for our interests continually pique our interest and feed our habits.

Did doomscrolling exist before the pandemic?

Definitely – in particular with patients that have presented with depression and anxiety. We talk a lot about confirmation bias: we tend to give more weight and focus to details in our environment that confirm our own beliefs.

If you’re struggling with depression, or thoughts that the world is all bad, you are going to focus more on articles or things in our environment that validate that belief.

In the pandemic, our routines got really thwarted; the ways that we access information changed. Beforehand people might have taken a break from work and had a chat with a colleague while they got a glass of water – this has been replaced with us just being on our phones and constantly having them with us as this companion of doom.

What impact is doomscrolling having on mental health among your patients?

I’ve seen this cycle of struggling in terms of mental health and then going out into the environment and having all those things confirmed and validated. It also often leads to feelings of hopelessness. In the pandemic, there’s been this collective experience of loss. Even if you didn’t know someone who passed away, there are still constant waves of hearing about loss. There’s a lot of pain. I’ve seen patients that have struggled with depression and anxiety, but if they also have a co-occurring condition, like substance use or trauma and PTSD, those get compounded and things can really be exacerbated pretty quickly.

What can people do to stop doomscrolling?

In the pandemic, I am seeing a lot of doomscrolling and languishing, but I also see a lot of thriving and new learning among my patient population. One of the questions I always ask is, ‘If you’re not using your phone, what would you be doing?’ Once they had awareness of how much time they were spending on their phones, it opened up this space of curiosity. ‘I could be reading or sourdough baking or working out’.

It’s important to stay informed and know what’s happening in the world, but it’s like checking email: we can’t constantly be on it. So I say to my patients if you want to read the news, then allow yourself some time, give yourself permission to do maybe half an hour in the morning, some time during the day, and then at night. You can decide whether or not this is helpful. Doomscrolling into the night is another place where people are vulnerable. They’re tired, they want to unwind, and then just like the cycle revs up again at night.

How does doomscrolling affect our sleep?

In my practice, I talk about self-sabotaging behaviour and how it’s serving you. We need to unwind, and we’ve maybe created a routine or culture where we unwind by doomscrolling.

In terms of disrupting sleep, it wreaks havoc on your circadian rhythms, and then you’re not able to regulate your mood because you’re grouchy.

If we’re tired, it’s very easy to fall into doomscrolling. But if we’re a little bit more alert and attuned to ourselves, we stand a better chance at being able to say, ‘Oh, God, I’m doomscrolling again’, let me put this down and refocus my energy on something that’s meaningful, that value driven and aligned with how I want to be living my life.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about mental health?

One in four people will experience mental illness in their lives, costing the global economy an estimated $6 trillion by 2030.

Mental ill-health is the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people aged 10–24 years, contributing up to 45% of the overall burden of disease in this age-group. Yet globally, young people have the worst access to youth mental health care within the lifespan and across all the stages of illness (particularly during the early stages).

In response, the Forum has launched a global dialogue series to discuss the ideas, tools and architecture in which public and private stakeholders can build an ecosystem for health promotion and disease management on mental health.

One of the current key priorities is to support global efforts toward mental health outcomes – promoting key recommendations toward achieving the global targets on mental health, such as the WHO Knowledge-Action-Portal and the Countdown Global Mental Health

Read more about the work of our Platform for Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare, and contact us to get involved.

What are your tips for good sleep?

We do a lot of cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia. We see a lot of people on their phones in bed, snuggled up, and it can be really disruptive to sleep, to intimacy, and your family. So for good sleep hygiene, you need to protect your bed for sleep and for sex.

Then if you do wake up in the middle of the night and have the urge to doomscroll, or look at your phone, can you replace that with a book that doesn’t get your emotional system activated?

Another thing is noticing when we are feeling really anxious or having depressive thoughts. You might wake up and be riddled with these thoughts. Find a way to either write them down or start challenging some of these thoughts rather than going to your phone and reading upsetting news.

People should also adopt a regular schedule, which means waking up at the same time every single day, even on the weekends, no matter how late you fell asleep, or how many naps you took. Good sleep is a habit.

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